Apocalypse, Ow! The Genius of Will Forte's 'Last Man on Earth'

How the actor-comedian and the 'Lego Movie' directors made a hit sitcom out of the end of the world

Will Forte in 'The Last Man on Earth.' Credit: Jordin Althaus/FOX

A man roams the countryside in a RV, searching for signs of life. Day after day, he travels from state to state, crossing off territories on a map with a Sharpie. Some sort of supervirus has decimated the population; the guy with the hobo beard and the filthy hoodie, however, has miraculously managed to survive the plague. We've seen this kind of hero before: the postapocalyptic lone wolf who wanders the wastelands, taking on the mantle of humanity's last hope. Then the man returns home from his fruitless journey — and proceeds to spend his days throwing bowling balls at stacks of fish tanks, lounging in a margarita-filled kiddie pool and apologizing to God for "all the recent masturbation." Somewhere out there, Mad Max is standing near a Thunderdome and sadly shaking his head.

It takes less than 10 minutes to establish that Phil Miller, the protagonist of Fox's new hit sitcom The Last Man on Earth, is not the sort of guy who'd battle mohawk-sporting marauders even if they did show up. As played by co-creator Will Forte, Miller goes from optimistic to opportunistic (he decorates the abandoned mansion he moves into with recently acquired possessions like Michael Jordan's jersey, Van Gogh's self portrait and the Oval Office's rug) to drunkenly indulging in every destructive whim, because hey, who's going to stop him? As MacGruber, the incompetent special-operations agent he played on Saturday Night Live and the 2010 movie of the same name, the comedian had a knack for inadvertently causing chaos. Here, he's gleefully destroying things on purpose — breaking store windows, crashing cars into other, the athletic destruction of household aquariums, etc.

"One of the best parts of writing the show," Forte says, "is that I get to think of these stupid little things that I’d do if nobody else was around — and then I get to go do them. I get to run over things with a steamroller. I get to use a flamethrower. Basically, I just wrote a character who's pretty much a version of what I would be like in that situation. If everyone on Earth was wiped out by a virus, I wouldn't have a clue about things like electricity or plumbing. I wouldn't know what the fuck to do!"

The concept of crafting a TV comedy about a man trying to negotiate being the last man standing came about when the SNL veteran and his longtime friends Phil Lord and Chris Miller — the filmmaking duo responsible for the off-the-wall 21 Jump Street reboot and The Lego Movie — were looking for a small-screen project to collaborate on. "We didn't even care if he acted in it," Lord says. "The idea was to write something together, because Will has this great comic voice and we just wanted to get that on TV somehow." During a three-day powwow, the trio brainstormed ideas back and forth; when one of them suggested something about a man left alone after the apocalypse, everyone quickly rejected it in favor of a scenario culled from real life.

If everyone on Earth was wiped out by a virus, I wouldn't have a clue about things like electricity or plumbing. I wouldn't know what the fuck to do!

"Originally...well, for a while Val Kilmer was sleeping on my couch," Forte says, chuckling. "We'd become friends after MacGruber, he was looking for a house in Malibu, and he asked, 'Hey, can I just stay at your place? I figured it'd be for a few days; it turned in to two months. So we'd settled on developing a project loosely based on that, and just as Chris was putting his jacket on to leave, he suddenly said, 'Hey, can we take a look at the end-of-the-world thing one more time?' Then things just clicked." (For their part, Miller and Lord haven't let go of the Kilmer idea: "If there was some way we could get a time machine and go back to make that as a reality show, we'd do it in a heartbeat," Miller jokes.)

As anyone who's seen The Last Man on Earth's first few episodes — and given the huge numbers the show's pilot did, we're talking a large number of folks — Forte's character isn't exactly the "last" person on earth: The Daily Show's Kristen Schaal shows up at the pilot's halfway point to play a fellow survivor named Carol, who decides they need to start repopulating ASAP (but first they have to get married, because she's old-fashioned). And Mad Men's January Jones mysteriously pops up at the climax of episode three, suggesting a potential love triangle on the horizon. "We've been adamant about keeping the various twists and turns a secret," Miller says, "but we can say that there's a revelation at the end of each of the 13 episodes, and that it's genuine serial storytelling, which we're excited about sharing with people." "And just because Phil has company," Lord adds, "doesn't mean that he won't continue to do dumb shit like throw bowling balls at fish tanks. That's always going to be a constant."

Indeed, while the show's creators emphasize that the introduction of romcom elements doesn't preclude more wish-fulfillment vandalism or mean the instant disappearance of Forte's homegrown beard — a tonsorial monstrosity whose look Miller describes as "a cross between 1890s prospector and homeless-man-yells-at-trashcan" — they're all quick to point out that the goal was never just Forte going gonzo. From the very beginning, the trio wanted to inject equal parts hilarity and pathos into what's admittedly an unlikely premise for a sitcom; the fact that they've managed to pull it off and prove that there's an actual audience for something different has, in their eyes, already made The Last Man on Earth a huge success.

"I like that it ends up being different that what most people think it's going to be," Forte says. "I would compare it to MacGruber, in that I'm sure a lot of folks were like 'Wait, is it just going to be some guy getting blown up every two minutes?' Then you realize it’s a little more than that. It's the same thing with this: 'Oh, it's just a dude dicking around all by himself for a half-hour every week?' Viewers figure out pretty quickly that there's a lot more going on. We wanted to see if we could take this outrageous idea and do something that was funny and emotional." He pauses for a second. "Actually, hardly anybody saw MacGruber, so maybe that’s the wrong thing to compare this to. Forget I said that."